Deborah Yaffe

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Sex in Jane Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, May 27 2013 01:00PM

The British novelist Howard Jacobson has done us all a service by pointing out the sex in Jane Austen.


Not the obvious but offstage sex: the elopement of Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, the adultery of Maria and Henry in Mansfield Park, the seduction of Eliza in Sense and Sensibility – all the juicy misbehavior that makes clear Jane Austen did, after all, know how babies are made.


No, in a lecture delivered over the weekend at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, held in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, Jacobson makes a subtler point: that Austen’s stories are suffused with sexual tension, not despite but because of their lack of on-stage sex scenes, with their apparatus of logistical description so familiar to readers of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.


“Is Anne Elliot's agitation, on being helped into the carriage by Captain Wentworth, any less materially present to us, is her disarrangement any less sensually felt, because there's no mention of where Wentworth puts his hands. . . ?” Jacobson asks. “The choice not to be more explicit – where on her body does he touch her, how hot are his fingers? – isn't governed by decorum only. It's as likely to be an artistic decision, too, keeping us wondering, as Anne herself must, what Wentworth's employment of his hands denotes, how far she dare allow her passion for him to be awakened.”


Partly, Jacobson is saying something about Austen’s writing – about how omitting precise details allows her to convey, quite precisely, the inchoate wishing, wanting, not having that make for the emotional drama in her stories.


And he’s also pointing out something that Janeites understand, if only unconsciously: the peculiar emotional intensity of Austen’s seemingly eventless stories is partly the fruit of repression. In the culture she writes about, people are expected to hide their feelings of joy, anger, misery, resentment – and, yes, lust – under a mannerly, suitable-for-public-consumption mask. But repressed emotion is no less present for being repressed; indeed, the effort to not express it may intensify its power.


This is one reason I’m often unconvinced by Austen interpretations that insist on literalizing and physicalizing every relationship in the books – claiming, for example, that Marianne Dashwood “must have” slept with Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. These interpretations imply that only physical consummation could account for the intensity of emotion in Austen’s stories. Why would Marianne be so upset about Willoughby’s betrayal, the argument seems to go, unless he’d stolen her virginity as well as her heart?


Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t (personally, I think not), but as Jacobson reminds us, it’s fundamentally beside the point. She doesn’t have to have slept with him to feel what she feels. All the agony of wanting, having, losing – it’s right there on the page, not off stage at all.


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